Proposition 31 might win the battle for the longest and most complex ballot measure. At more than 8,000 words Prop. 31 is an opus to California Forward‘s attempt to restructure and rebuild California’s government from the core. To do that it outlines nine main changes:
- Establishes a two-year budget cycle
- Permits the governor to make unilateral budget cuts during fiscal emergencies
- Requires all bills to be published three days prior to a vote
- Forces lawmakers to identify a funding source for new programs or tax deductions
- Requires performance reviews
- Defines specific goals for the state budget and all local government budgets
- Allows local governments to establish “Community Strategic Action Plans”
- Allocates $200 million a year in sales tax to those plans
- Allows local governments to transfer local property taxes among themselves.
Whew, that’s a lot.
But one component of the initiative is particularly opaque: What are these “Community Strategic Action Plans”? What are they supposed to do? KQED called California Forward’s Executive Director Kristin Connelly to ask her specifically about the plans. California Forward wrote and sponsored Prop. 31.
We also spoke to one of the plan’s detractors, Wendy Mitchell, a member of the California Coastal Commission and who serves on the board of the California League of Conservation Voters.
Below are transcripts of those conversations, edited for clarity and length:
Lisa Pickoff-White, KQED: We’ve had readers and listeners contact us with questions about Proposition 31’s Community Strategic Action Plans. What are they and what are they meant to do?
Kristin Connelly: What we wanted to do is put forth a plan for what works. The Community Strategic Action Plan really comes from local folk involved in delivering services, at the local level, who said that they could do a better job if they had some flexibility and were allowed to integrate services, which evidence shows leads to better outcomes.
The plan is a voluntary component in Proposition 31; nobody has to do a Community Strategic Action Plan. It’s not a regional government — there’s a lot of misinformation there about Prop. 31 — but there are appropriate levels of oversight. Everything has to happen through a majority vote of the local jurisdictions of the community governments that are opting to participate.
The idea is this: if a majority of the cities in a county and the school districts representing a majority of the students [in that county] want to work together to solve problems then they can. If there is some sort of state regulation or a statute that interferes with their ability to deliver those state funded services they can propose a community rule in order to administer those services.
So these governments come up with a plan, and each jurisdiction has to approve it by a majority vote of their boards. Then once a county and all the local governments have taken all the steps to put together their plan, the legislature still has an opportunity, or relevant state agency if there’s a particular regulation that a community is seeking a community rule on. They have 60 days to review the plans and veto them to say you know what you didn’t meet the mark or there’s something that’s not working and you need to do a better job. Then it goes back to community, and doesn’t go into effect.
The clock for the legislature doesn’t start to toll if the legislature isn’t in session. We tried to make this as flexible for the local governments as possible, impactful, and a process that makes sense.
Pickoff-White: You’ve said that you based this on other projects. What are those projects?
Connelly: Since the 1990’s 11 counties have taken advantage of a series of small-scale pilot projects. Fresno used this authority to develop a strategic plan to coordinate its efforts to improve youth outcomes. They created seven neighborhood resource centers that provided integrated public safety and health services. They received waivers so that they could pool several state and federal funding streams to support them. Since then more students are scoring above the 50th percentile on the SAT, crime is down, school attendance is up.
Another example, Marin County they created a youth pilot program devoted to reducing placements in the county’s very costly foster care programs. The pilot program received permission to pool resources from two state funding streams and to alter Medi-Cal requirements. The state allowed Marin to keep the savings it generated so that created an incentive for them. Their program has been successful for 90 percent of the children it served. In 2004 the county was able to hold onto the estimated $900,000 in savings it generated by improving results.
Pickoff-White: If there are already counties and districts that are changing these programs and able to change the funding streams then why do we need these Community Strategic Action Plans?
Connelly: We wanted to be able to bring it to scale. So it’s an opportunity and not just done on a piecemeal basis. The measure provides important incentive funding [$200 million]. This money is meant to be planning money and collaboration money to incentivize counties, cities and communities to facilitate this collaboration. We have no way of knowing how many counties will avail themselves of this and our hope is that we’re going to create an echo chamber here and that our success will foster others. Counties can encourage one another to participate in this manner.
Pickoff-White: Some of your detractors including the California League of Conservation Voters and the League of Women Voters and the Federation of Teachers have argued that Prop. 31 would hurt education, environment, health and other priorities.
Connelly: We respectfully disagree. The Community Strategic Action Plans don’t apply to very important environmental provisions. It’s about state funded programs and the manner in which the programs are funded. There’s a disagreement there. Personally I tried to get styrofoam banned from Contra Costa County as a young person. I care a lot about the environment. I’m a true environmentalist, so I wouldn’t be supporting Prop. 31 if I didn’t think that it had lots of benefits.
The cycle that we’re in is not acceptable and it needs to improve. We really believe that Prop. 31 is a great way to get there.
Pickoff-White: What kinds of checks and balances do you have?
Connelly: I think one of the important things about Proposition 31 that many people don’t talk about is performance based budgeting and what it requires in actually focusing on results and reporting those. What we’re trying to do is focus the budgets of the state on stuff that works and is getting things done for Californians. We’re not imposing some new structure of government or some regional collaboration. The Community Strategic Action Plans that I was speaking about are a voluntary component of the measure. We think it’s a great opportunity, but it’s not going to be imposed on people. We did not want to have a one-size-fits-all approach there.
Some of the questions that we get — and concerns from detractors — come from misunderstanding how the measure actually works. The reason I mention performance-based budgeting and all the transparency components of Prop. 31 is that I think we have the opportunity to turn the page to a new era of governance where we really have changed the culture, where we focus on results and see what we’re getting rather than what did we spend last year. Let’s see what works and what are we getting with the investment of our tax dollars. How government chooses to spend its tax dollars is among the most important decisions that leaders make. We think this is an important step forward.
Wendy Mitchell is a member of the California Coastal Commission and serves on the board of the California League of Conservation Voters.
Pickoff-White: You’ve come out against Proposition 31 and one of the reasons you cited was the Community Strategic Action Plans. Why?
Mitchell: This initiative was couched as reform. Everyone wants reform, and the state of California certainly needs reform. However, one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to this initiative, and why the environmental community and the League of Women Voters — and others — are opposing this, is because of these Community Strategic Plans.
They’re great buzz words, but what would happen is it would allow a county board of supervisors to adopt a Community Strategic Plan. Then, if they determine that a state law or regulation was impeding this Action Plan and their ability to achieve it, they could then determine their own community rule. That would be a functional equivalent of what the state law was.
What is going to happen with that is multiple things. One, you’ll have communities that will not be consistent with state law. Our environmental laws, our worker safety laws, our health and human services laws can be in jeopardy. You have everyone — 58 different counties — passing different rules to apply state laws.
And then most importantly you’re going to have litigation on every single Community Strategic Plan and community rule because it’s not clearly defined in the legislation. The local governments and everybody is going to litigate. So the courts are going to decide. It’s going to throw all development in local communities into a tailspin.
Pickoff-White: California Forward argues that these plans are optional. No one is forcing communities into these.
Mitchell: That is true. But it also sets aside $200 million — takes it out of the state budget which is already seriously in jeopardy — to allow local governments to do these Community Strategic Plans. Some may, some may not. But we can’t run the risk of local communities making plans about how they adhere to state laws.
That wouldn’t be good for the business community. I know the conservative right wing is opposed to this, as well as liberal Democrats. It really doesn’t work for anyone in the state of California and it isn’t good for business because you’re going to have different counties in the state. And the litigation alone is going to take decades to get sorted out.
So yes, it is optional. But the environmental community, the League of Women Voters and newspapers up and down the state have come out in opposition to this initiative.
Pickoff-White: I spoke to Kristin Connelly, California Forward’s executive director, about this and she said that what this does is allow communities to do what they need to do, and decide what’s important to them. She pointed out several examples in education, specifically in Fresno, where this has worked out. Do you think communities need a way to change these restrictions to work together?
Mitchell: I think certainly local communities have very big input. As you know they do all the zoning, they create plans around housing, etc. They have a large role, the local government. The people have their elected representatives at the state level as well.
But creating a patchwork in which schools in one county are administered one way and schools in another county have a totally different threshold for passage of classes is a recipe for disaster. If everyone is going into vocational college, community college, UC or CSU they need to have the same foundation of education. And while local governments and local school boards have a role in that, there is consistency throughout the state because of state regulations and state statutes.
Pickoff-White: The measure does allow state agencies and the legislature to say, “No, we’re not going to allow you to make these changes.” Do you think that prevents some of the problems you’re talking about?
Mitchell: I think that’s not realistic for the timeline of how government actually works. First of all the state legislature is out four months of the year. So it’s a 60-day timeline to vote up or down. Organizations like the Coastal Commission, if they created the functional equivalent to the coastal act, we only meet every 30 days, so being able to review and act upon that in a timely manner just isn’t feasible. I think that pays lip service to the issues that I’m raising, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
Learn more about Prop. 31 in KQED’s Proposition Guide.